Heaven,” Jonathan Edwards says in the fifteenth and last of his Charity Sermons, “is a World of Love.” In saying this, however, he did not seem to have in mind what many of us might -immediately hope for or suppose. To be sure, in one of his Miscellanies, asking himself “whether the saints, when they go to heaven, have any special comfort in their meeting with those that were their godly friends on earth,” Edwards answers affirmatively. He suggests that they would find -special comfort in seeing again in bliss those with whom they had been close in this earthly life.
But in “Heaven, A World of Love” Edwards is more circumspect. What the saints will find in heaven is not loved ones from whom they have been parted but the one for whose sake “they were ready to undergo the severest sufferings, or to forsake father and mother, and wife, and children, and lands.” Moreover, as the editor of the Ethical Writings in the Yale edition of Edwards’s Works observes in a footnote, “Sermon Fifteen is remarkable in that it omits discussion of the reunion of family members and friends as one of heaven’s attractions.” To be sure, loving God for his own sake “and each other for God’s sake,” the saints in heaven shall, Edwards says, “be united together in a very near relation.” But there will, it seems, be no need for any distinction between near and more distant neighbors; rather, all “shall be related to one another as brethren.” Appealing as this may be in some respects, can we honestly say it is what we hope for? After all, if everyone is “special” to me, it might seem that no one is—that there is no particular reason to hope for reunion with those who were especially close to me in this life.
Taking Edwards seriously might move us to ask whether it is really God whom we desire. Are our hearts really restless, as Augustine supposed, until they rest in God? Or is God just a necessary means to reunion on the far shore? Not the object of our longing, but one who returns us to the status quo ante, enabling reunion with those we loved and from whom we are now separated by death?
What should be apparent is that thinking about our desire for reunion on the far shore directs us to a problem at the heart of the Christian life. How are we to hold together—to live together—the two great commands, to love both God and the neighbor? Clearly, if we think of God chiefly as one who exists to satisfy our desires and make us happy, we are hardly loving him above all else. Moreover, it is hard to deny that much in our loves and desires is misshapen and distorted, and that they often need not to be satisfied but to be redirected and perfected. Of course, being redirected and perfected does not have to mean being entirely rejected or renounced. Perhaps on the other side of such perfecting there will be fulfillment, a reunion on the far shore.
The problem, however, is that it is hard to specify adequately what it means for our loves to be perfected. “Perfection always includes transformation,” as Josef Pieper once wrote, and such transformation “perhaps resembles passing through something akin to dying.” To begin to enter into the experience of such transformation, attempting to live together the two great commandments, is not just a matter for the far shore. It is central to the experience of Christian life here and now.
Few Christian thinkers have wrestled more fully with this experience than C. S. Lewis did. Though he is, to be sure, an apologist for the faith, even closer to the center of his writing is an account of an experience—that painful experience of loving God and neighbors simultaneously. In the rather austere chapter on “Charity” in The Four Loves, Lewis first suggests that whether we will know and enjoy in heaven those to whom we were close in this life may depend on whether our love, even in this life, had begun to be transformed by divine love. But then he catches himself, worrying that he may already have promised too much. For, he writes, “I dare not . . . leave any bereaved and desolate reader confirmed in the widespread illusion that reunion with the loved dead is the goal of the Christian life.” Tempted as we may be to suppose that such a reunion would be “completely satisfying,” that cannot be the point of heaven. If we desire heaven for the sake of “earthly comfort,” we will find that heaven can give only heavenly comfort and “there is no earthly comfort in the long run.” The beauty of the loved one is a manifestation of God’s own beauty, intended to draw us to God. To us this may sound as if we were being asked to turn away from those we love most. But when we see the face of God, Lewis writes, we will realize that it is the face of one to whom the other loves have been drawing us all along: “By loving Him more than them we shall love them more than we now do.”
We might recall the words of Augustine (who deeply influenced Edwards and to whom Lewis said his own debts were “incalculable”):
The reward of virtue will be God himself. . . . He will be the goal of all our longings; . . . we shall love him without satiety; we shall praise him without wearying. This will be the duty, the delight, the activity of all, shared by all who share the life of eternity.
Not without reason, therefore, did I characterize Lewis’s chapter on Charity as “austere.” For, whatever may be true of our perfected loves in heaven, and however much divine grace may be at work in us beginning to perfect those loves here and now, that process of perfecting “will always involve a kind of death.” Made for God as we are, there can be no earthly comfort in the long run.
Reunion on the far shore feels much less austere, however, in The Last Battle, seventh and last of the Chronicles of Narnia. When night falls on Narnia, three of the Pevensie children—Peter, Edmund, and Lucy—are drawn into Aslan’s world through a stable door. In that world, they find what seems to be a new (and more real) Narnia, with all its familiar places and sights. As they gradually realize this, the Lord Digory says: “‘All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia.’” And the children realize that the reason they had loved the old Narnia was that it had looked a little like—and pointed them toward—this more real and “deeper” country. As they move still farther into Aslan’s world, they begin to meet all their dear friends from Narnia—Reepicheep the valiant Mouse, Puddleglum the Marshwiggle, Trumpkin the Dwarf, Tumnus the Faun, and even (from England) their own father and mother.
This is a reunion on the far shore if ever there was one. Nothing good has been lost, because all that was good in England and in Narnia had been a shadow of or pointer toward the greater reality of Aslan’s world: “The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more.” Having said farewell to Shadow-lands, the children find themselves walking together in “a great, bright procession,” reunited with those whom they had known but lost in Narnia.
Evidently neither the Narnian reunion nor the austerity of The Four Loves, taken alone, can tell the whole story. Nevertheless, it is hard to deny that within Lewis’s writings there are many echoes of the claim that “there is no earthly comfort in the long run.” For example, The Great Divorce, published at least a decade before The Four Loves, clearly shares that theme and is, in places, even more austere.
Taking an excursion from the Grey Town to heaven are ghosts who must decide whether they want to stay or return. They are met by redeemed souls (the “Bright Spirits”), who are sent to encourage them to stay. But heaven is so much “more real” than the Grey Town that the ghosts can barely manage to walk on the grass. It is so firm and sharp that it does not even bend beneath their feet. Of all the ghosts observed by the narrator only one decides to stay. For most of them it seems in the end that remaining in heaven would require them to give up too much that they love. That is the lesson the narrator (who turns out to be Lewis) learns from the Teacher, an elderly Scottish gentleman (George MacDonald).
Among the most striking encounters is that of a woman named Pam, who is met by her brother Reginald, one of the Bright Spirits. She has come to see her son, Michael, and is upset that he has not been sent to meet her. But Reginald tells her that sending Michael would have been pointless, for at present she is not solid enough to be visible to him. Irritated by this, she demands to know when she will be allowed to see her son. It’s not at all a question of being allowed, Reginald tells her:
You will become solid enough for Michael to perceive you when you learn to want someone else besides Michael. I don’t say “more than Michael,” not as a beginning. That will come later. It’s only the little germ of a desire for God that we need to start the process.
Evidently, even the love of a mother for her child, the kind of love Pam supposes entitles her to see Michael, cannot by itself make possible a heavenly reunion. “You exist as Michael’s mother,” Reginald explains, “only because you first exist as God’s creature.”
Does this mean that there can be no such thing as a heavenly reunion? Not exactly. For as the Teacher explains to Lewis: “Love, as mortals understand the word, isn’t enough. Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this country: but none will rise again until it has been buried.” Which seems to be the Teacher’s way of saying that heaven can give only heavenly comfort and that there is no earthly comfort in the long run.
The natural loves, and their natural desire for reunion on the far shore, must first be buried. Lewis’s most haunting expression of that truth is surely Till We Have Faces. Subtitled “A Myth Retold,” it retells and reshapes the myth of Cupid and Psyche, a myth that had lived within Lewis’s imagination for decades. Those who have read his retelling will not soon forget it nor cease to be troubled by it. For those who have not read it, a summary of the plot could never be adequate. We can say just enough, however, to appreciate the power of Lewis’s myth.
Orual, Queen of Glome (an imaginary kingdom in the Hellenistic world a few centuries before the birth of Christ), is writing her complaint against the gods. That complaint, as the reader eventually realizes, is that the transformation of our loves resembles, as Pieper noted, “passing through something akin to dying.” The gods take those we love most from us, Orual says, but they never give any clear and understandable justification for doing so. “That there should be gods at all,” she writes in her complaint, “there’s our misery and bitter wrong. There’s no room for you and us in the same world.” This, at any rate, is what a reader, trusting Orual’s account, must at first assume is the truth.
Only very late in Lewis’s myth retold do we realize that Orual’s complaint, however sincerely meant and scrupulously recounted, is marked at its very core by self-deception. For, although she had caught a momentary glimpse of the palace in which her sister Psyche lived as the bride of a god, she convinces herself that this cannot be. So possessive is her love for Psyche that she will not accept being replaced in Psyche’s affections. Nor is that the only instance in which her “love” turns out to be destructive. Deeply attached as she is to a Greek slave (the Fox) who has been her tutor and counselor, she cannot bring herself to acknowledge that what he really wants is the freedom to return to his homeland. And, without being able to admit it to herself, she has loved Bardia, the warrior who time after time helped secure her throne—but loved him in a possessive way that drained his energy and sent him home to his wife only when he was exhausted. In one of Lewis’s letters that is often quoted, he characterizes Orual as “an instance . . . of human affection in its natural condition: true, tender, suffering, but in the long run, tyrannically possessive and ready to turn to hatred when the beloved ceases to be its possession.” And, of course, if we are really God’s creatures, made to enjoy life with him forever, we can never “possess” another, however deep our affection. Surely, the transformation of such a love is likely to be painful indeed.
When, in the end, Orual is invited to read her complaint in the presence of the Judge, she finds that she has nothing to say. Hers is a terrifying realization. “The speech which has lain at the center” of her soul for years turns out to have been just words that cloaked the self-deception and devouring love hidden deep within her. Freed from that self-deception and now loving Psyche truly, she stands before the god who comes to judge her:
I loved her as I would once have thought it impossible to love, would have died any death for her. And yet, it was not, not now, she that really counted. Or if she counted (and oh, gloriously she did) it was for another’s sake.
Peter Schakel, who has written very helpfully about Till We Have Faces, notes that “it remains the least popular” of Lewis’s fictional works. Why should that be? “In many cases,” Schakel suggests, “readers come to Lewis’s works looking for answers and explanations. Perhaps one reason Till We Have Faces is his least popular story is that it doesn’t provide either answers or explanations.” What it does instead is report and display an experience—an experience that is first Orual’s but may also be ours, and that must be taken at least as seriously as that glorious reunion at the end of Narnian history. How are we to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind while simultaneously finding place in heart and mind for others with whom our lives are closely bound? That experience is, Lewis clearly thinks, central to Christian existence.
“Die before you die,” the god tells Orual. That is, if there is to be any reunion on the far shore, any renewal of earthly loves, it can come only when all that is possessive and self-serving in those loves is dead and buried. Only when it is not those loves that count but another for whose sake they (gloriously) count. And so Orual ends her “complaint”: “I ended my first book with the words no answer. I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away.”
And before that face the tension between the two great love commands also dies away. Renunciation is not permitted the final word. It is Screwtape, after all, who actually knows (to his dismay) the truth about life with God on the far shore. “He’s a hedonist at heart,” Screwtape writes to Wormwood. “All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a facade. Or only like foam on the seashore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure.” We should not be surprised, therefore, that—rigorously honest as he was about Christian experience and deeply committed as he was to the first great commandment—Jonathan Edwards, on his deathbed, should nonetheless have whispered to one of his daughters: “Give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her, that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature, as I trust is spiritual, and therefore will continue for ever.”
Gilbert Meilaender is Senior Research Professor of Theology at Valparaiso University.